LONGMONT, Colo. –
Neighbors of the Rocky Mountain Christian Church won’t be seeing new buildings at the Niwot campus immediately, despite a judge’s order for Boulder County to approve the church’s expansion plan.
U.S. District Judge Robert Blackburn on Monday ordered county commissioners to give the go-ahead to the church, which has asked to be able to expand on land adjacent to its 106,000-square foot campus.
The county has 45 days to comply with Blackburn’s ruling, but it has the option of appealing. Church leaders said Tuesday there are no immediate plans to begin construction.
“Our expectation is that we will definitely expand, but there is no time table at this moment for that,” said Rev. Alan Ahlgrim, the church’s lead pastor. “But we’re hopeful that the county commissioners will agree to partner with us and do what’s best for the county. It was never our desire to go this far.”
Commissioners denied the church’s expansion permit in 2006, saying the project was an over-intensive use of the property and not in harmony with surrounding areas. They also said the expansion would move into an agricultural buffer zone created decades ago to separate urban and rural areas.
The church â which proposed to build an education building, a chapel, a multipurpose building, a gymnasium and a gallery on 54 acres of private land â sued, claiming the county discriminated against it.
A jury in Colorado’s federal district court found in November that the county violated three parts of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act by denying the church’s application.
But the jury found commissioners did not discriminate on the basis of religion and, therefore, did not infringe on the First Amendment right to freedom of religion.
In his ruling, Blackburn said he supported the jury’s verdicts in favor of the church. The county argued its decision was valid because the Boulder County Land Use Code and the Boulder County Comprehensive Plan are “compelling governmental interests,” but the judge disagreed.
“I think we had a strong case and still do,” County Commissioner Ben Pearlman said Tuesday, adding that the commission has not yet discussed whether it will appeal.
The county also argued that portions of religious land use act unconstitutional, but Blackburn disagreed with that assertion as well.
Blackburn has yet to decide how much of the church’s legal costs Boulder County will have to pay.
Commissioner Will Toor said he believes the county has a strong case, but he and his colleagues will have to weigh the value of pursuing it.
“Certainly, the decision will be made with consideration of what the cost will be to appeal,” he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.